Cathy Duchamp


SoBo Grocery Sort


I’ll admit it.  The new Harris Teeter in South Baltimore’s Locust Point is food nirvana.  Dry-aged tenderloin beef.  Stone crab claws.  Prosciutto by the slice. But I think there’s something lost with the opening of a gourmet supermarket in SoBo.  It’s the mix of race and class I’ve seen in the grocery aisle.

Before Harris Teeter, the only full-size supermarket south of the Inner Harbor was the Shoppers Food Warehouse at the Southside Shopping Center.  A colleague of mine once joked that Shoppers offers the best people-watching in the city: yuppies in business suits complaining about the bad produce, frat boys from Riverside buying stacks of frozen dinners, grandmas holding coupons like hot hands in poker, cashiers with big butts and bigger hairdos, white moms loading toilet paper and pork chops into folding shopping carts they push home and black moms loading groceries into taxis that carry them home to the food deserts of southwest Baltimore. It’s a mosaic of shapes, sizes and colors all packed into the same, usually long, checkout line. People bound together by lack of choice.

But with Harris Teeter comes choice.  I fear the mosaic will break into its component parts.  It’s what author and journalist Bill Bishop calls the Big Sort: When given the choice, people will organize themselves into like-minded clusters.   In this case, white-collar folks will go to Harris Teeter.  Working-class folks will stay with Shoppers, especially when the 25-percent-off Teeter coupons expire. 

In some ways, this stratification in the grocery aisle is just human nature, or to borrow the cliché from the avian world, “Birds of a feather flock together.”  We feel safer and more comfortable around people who look like us.  Plus, we’re only talking about groceries, right?

Maybe not.  The new Harris Teeter is a reflection of the gentrification of South Baltimore.  The recession has tamped down home prices for now. But most locals expect the gourmet grocer to attract more young professionals to the neighborhood, and maybe even suburban families ready to give the city a try.  Rents for the new apartments next to Harris Teeter range from $1,400 to $2,500 a month.

What this means for me is that I’ll be sharing my neighborhood with more people who look like me: a 40-something white Baltimore transplant with a desk job and liberal arts degree. Yuck.  I can look in the mirror to see that.  What I want to see is a kaleidoscope of people; old-timers and newcomers, people who worked at the Proctor & Gamble soap factory and people who work at Under Armour, people who walk everywhere and people who drive, people who like purple Christmas trees and people who like real ones, people who wear Gore-Tex jackets and people who wear clear vinyl rain hats.  It’s the crazy quilt of SoBo that I’ve come to love.  It’s not always pretty.  But it keeps me warm.  And with that, my compassion for the differences I see grows. 

Even so, you will see me at Harris Teeter.  And the new Asian bistro that will be opening soon, along with the new dry cleaner and doggie boutique.   Shoppers will still draw me in, especially for the 59-cent “Colossal” glazed donut, the best in Baltimore.  And the smoked turkey tails.  Harris Teeter only has wings and legs.  But really, I’ll keep going to Shoppers to be around people who are different from me.